Rarely has anything good has come out of my life without an intense, 6-12 month slog. So it may seem like I lived a miserable life, gritting my teeth to push through the slog.
Yet, the reality was quite different. I was always super-motivated and rarely had to dip into my willpower reserves.
But then, why would one be motivated to slog? Does our brain not always try to seek pleasure and avoid pain? Turns that, that is only a half-truth. Understanding this holds the secret to long-lasting motivation.
Chemically, motivation can be boiled down to just one neurotransmitter – dopamine. Whatever makes dopamine go up, we are motivated to perform that action, and vice versa.
When something gives us pleasure, e.g., eating ice cream, a circuit in our brain (mesolimbic circuit) releases dopamine.
But – and this is the key – there is another brain circuit (the mesocortical circuit) that releases dopamine, which has NOTHING to do with pleasure. It releases dopamine when we accomplish our goals or feel a sense of progress.
This is why we get excited when we get the crack a crossword puzzle, get the first prize in class, or when our teacher says, “Well done!”
Humans are, thankfully, not slaves to pleasure-seeking behavior. We can derive motivation to do things that we find meaningful – that give us a sense of accomplishment, even when they are extremely unpleasant and hard.
So whenever you have a huge task, if you find meaning in it or if you break it into smaller milestones and crush them, the sense of progress will keep you going.
When dopamine is high, you will climb the highest mountain – not everything in life has to be easy.